Scrap “Small Groups”

I am just going to say it… Small groups and small group ministries within church organizations need to be terminated.  Yes, I said it… nixed, annihilated.

They simply do not work.

Small groups create disciples as much as working at McDonald’s creates quality 5-star chefs.  Small groups do not create disciples; disciples create disciples.  And the way small groups are led within the walls of most institutions I know of or have been a part of, are typically led by people who have attended that particular church, had some sort of “conversion” experience within the walls, probably led a reasonably moral life, and knows how to read study-guide questions.  However, in all actuality most of them are nowhere near disciples themselves.

From my experience, I would say most American churches have lowered the bar of small group leadership to a ridiculous level. Church staff has lowered the bar to the point that I feel the whole church organization would be better off not even offering small groups at all than to have so-called leaders who are nowhere near a disciple of Christ lead them.

I think these small groups get started on the wrong foot.. because the foot is human.

The way I see small groups forming is by a bunch of well-intentioned Christians, armed with the latest “Christian” fad they learned from a weekend conference that stressed some sort of organizational theory that persuaded their pragmatic hearts into believing they themselves could actually organize, measure, and control the unseen power of The Holy Spirit.

Many institutional churches believe this crap.  If a person can read, they can lead.  Ever heard that one before?

I remember going to leadership training and 90% of the classes were how to come up with and perform “ice-breakers” to get the group to know each other.  Wow, I look back on how scripted everything was to get people to like you and to like Christ … what a bunch of bullshit that is.

Looking back on my 10 years heavily involved in “institutional” church thinking, here is on thing I noticed since I cleared my mind after leaving.  The groups of people who helped me grow as a disciple started out by what appeared to be an accident.  I never grew spiritually from some fake church-wide small group initiative the senior pastor or marketing team thought up to help grow “small group” attendance… because they heard some top-notch church analysts say they should maintain a certain “worship-small group” ratio each and every week.

I can only speak for myself, but let me know if you have felt similar.  I felt myself growing spiritually when I was not even looking for it.  There were times I was not even remotely interested in joining a small group.  Most of the time, when I was not participating, and I was just getting together with people just out of the pure joy of being together with them in Christ (and with no curriculum, or agenda), it just happened… naturally and spontaneously.

Within all the small group studies I have been a part of, and there were a bunch, I never felt like anyone ever wanted to break the surface and actually open their hearts with one another.  Until a community is based on Christ and is Christ focused alone, people will never break the surface.  In other words, you get great surface friendships from these groups, but do you really ever grow as His Body?

So, I see disciples being created “outside”.  Small groups, by their “church” practice, mostly occur “inside”.

As a joke, I think.  Small groups are wonderful at producing Christians who can sit in a circle and talk to one another inside a building, and while they are sitting in a building they can comment on the Bible together.  Then you hear them spouting over and over how they long to “get outside” and do something that matters, and then never do.  Then these small group people awkwardly end their time by praying for “prayer requests”.  See my post on how much I dislike “prayer requests”.

So here is a question for you.   Do you honestly think Jesus would either join, lead, or even start a small group within the structure of an institutional church’s small group ministry?

If so, please explain… I say hell would freeze over first.

(Disclaimer.. I am not saying we should never get together in groups … far from it.  I do believe we were created to be together as His Body in community, just not by human-made “Christian” concepts)

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16 thoughts on “Scrap “Small Groups”

  1. Wow, you’re firey today. (Fiery? Firy? ‘On fire’ is what I mean.)

    “Within all the small group studies I have been a part of, and there were a bunch, I never felt like anyone ever wanted to break the surface and actually open their hearts with one another.”

    Wow. That was the exact opposite of my experience. When I was in the CoC (‘liberal’ branch), we met in people’s homes, apartments, and even outside. We were always active. These are the folks I did community activities with, went on missions trips with, etc. etc. We didn’t just SAY we wanted to do something…we actually DID it! 😀

    What’s more, nary a small group went by when someone didn’t open up and share what was going on in their life, or asked for understanding and prayers about a certain issue. It was awesome, and I honestly miss that level of community.

    I WILL agree, though, that there’s an exact wrong way to do small groups….and you just named it. The benefit my group had was that we were all in college .. still too young to become truly embittered against the world. And, while I have grown to not agree with EVERYTHING, I still feel that was a huge time of personal and spiritual growth. (It took three years teaching English in China to break my spirit. I don’t think teaching anywhere else would have done it; trying to be subversive while one also wants to spread the Gospel is….stressful. If we’d been able to be more open with it, I probably wouldn’t have broken quite so easily or so fast!)

    I’m curious to know the particular institution you were a part of. I’m sure you’ve said it before, but what kind of church was it? What denomination, specifically? Was it small or big?

    Also, while I agree that one can grow spiritually outside of the church building just the same as inside of it, I think it’s important to realize that just because something is organized and takes place in a building doesn’t mean it’s a BAD thing, either. I know people can get obsessed with the building to the point of forgetting about the people, but I think that’s why it’s all the more important to find a good group of solid disciples to study with … whether it’s in the building or out of it. I know that when I got to my current church in particular, I’m always glad I went. God always shows me something through the people there, and I’m always glad for the opportunity. (This of course may just be lingering PTSD from all those years ago.)

    After all, WE are the body of Christ. 🙂

    (Though I can tell you from the most extreme experience, having a church building makes worship a heckuva lot easier. Also not worrying that the police are going to beat your door down if you sing too loud…)

    If I seem too positive for your taste, please just keep in mind that I grew up with parents who openly HATED and RANTED ABOUT church folk ALL THE TIME. I didn’t know why at the time (though I learned eventually), but now that I’m an adult, I can understand their hatred a bit more. They never took me to church. The only time I saw the inside of a church building before I started going on my own in my late teens was when my dad had to play a Christmas concert or something.

    Still, despite that, I ended up being a Christian so…take that as you will. 🙂

    BTW, are you familiar with the blog, Stuff Christians Like? (Don’t be thrown by the title.) It’s a Christian humor blog that often pokes fun at our ridiculousness. I think you’d enjoy it.

    1. Liz – I missed you… where have you been?

      I am so glad to hear that you have had deep meaningful relationships come out of a small group environment. That is awesome.

      I do think we should all gather as the church in different forms, I just do not like when things become too businesslike and act like a checklist.

      You do not seem too positive. If you have had positive experiences, then please share them.

      I know people share what is going on in their lives, but it is usually just surface sharing and not true struggles from the heart. Maybe it was my age and the age I hung around… but I am glad you found that type of community!

      Take care,

      Swanny

      Oh by the way, I am not picking on any particular church I attended in the past, but they came in small and large sizes and typically ran a non-denominational doctrine.

      Later.

      1. Hey, just realized you’d replied to me with this! Sorry for my extremely late reply!

        Yeah, it can be frustrating when folks are putting up an obviously fake front, but there’s also the other end of the spectrum: Folks being TOO honest.

        I’ve known entirely too much about entirely too many Christians who didn’t want to work on their personal stuff. It can get a wee bit frustrating. I’d rather folks not tell me their deepest and darkest thoughts and experiences if they aren’t wanting to work on those things. x_x;;;;;

    1. MandB – Thanks for stopping by and taking time to read my experiences.

      Welcome, and if I come across angry, i am not. All my post do not put down the people, I just have a problem with the institution itself.

      Later.

      1. seems to be a ‘dis-ease’ that’s going around these days. i was not offended by your candor… our own experiences resemble some of yours. i can appreciate the passion with which you write on the issues.
        -mike

  2. I liked what Liz wrote. That was a great comment and caught things just right. It’s not about how big the group is (though that has a major impact on the dynamics), it’s about who we are centred on. Are we focussed on Jesus, or are we obsessed with rules, regulations, structure, leadership and tradition?

    I meet every week with just one or two others in a variety of combinations. But my wife is part of a local New Frontiers group and helps to run one of their small groups. I’m grateful to be included in it too although I don’t go along for the big meetings on Sundays and I’m not a member.

    But those small group meetings have been good. They show some of the downsides you mention, Swanny. But people are growing in grace, they encourage one another, they invite the neighbours round, they have a lot of fun, they pray for one another, they reach unbelievers and draw them in and they start to follow Jesus too. That’s good!

    See what you think of this post I put up a few days ago – http://jesus.scilla.org.uk/2012/11/am-i-member-of-church.html

    Also, check out this guest blog by Steph from about a year ago, I really think it gets to the essence of things – http://jesus.scilla.org.uk/2011/11/simple-gathering-of-believers.html

    1. Chris – Welcome! I will check out your blog posts.

      Yes, Liz always has great comments.

      I am glad to hear you are all in great gatherings. I am definitely not saying to scrap all type of small groups.. just ones that are run like businesses and on a timer (like most ran from institutional churches)

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  3. Hey Swanny, I get what your saying. TOTALLY. In the church I used to attend this is how their small groups work: First there is WDM & MDM (Women’s Dicipilship Ministry & MEN’s Dicipilship Ministry). Through these ministries there are weekly meetings set up for men or women to gather together for Bible study. A book (either a topical issue or a Bible study guide) is chosen by consensus. At the women’s meeting it is usually the same, a song, a word of prayer, and then on to the Chapter questions for the week. The discussion is usually good, nothing ground breaking. I used to be all jazzed for those types of studies because, up until that point in my life, i had never been discipled, I didn’t know or understand what real discipleship looked like. I have to admit, toward the end of my WDM days, I got tired of the same old milquetoast-type studies. The ones chosen were usally geared toward women, reminding us how to be better wives and mothers. The thing that struck me over time was how it always seemed like the message about being a good, submissive wife was repeated time and again, but you never really saw or heard of the men getting hammered about being better husbands & fathers. Why is that?!
    At the end of each meeting a piece of paper with stuff to fill in was handed out. The slip was for us to be “accountable” to each other by holding one another up in prayer. There was a space for: your name, a place to mark how many days you spent in prayer and in the Word, a space to indicate if you got you “mini-goal” done, a space to indicate whether or not you contacted your accountability partner and how, a space for sharing a praise, and then a space for your prayer requests. My head still whirls at times to think of how I was “into” all that crap. Geez…. Then we would fold up the papers, put them in a basket, and each person would draw one out and THAT would be their accountability partner for that week. You were the one responsible for praying for that person and being in touch with them over the course of the week. Calls & cards were the most efficient form of keeping in touch, but it was almost unheard of to go and actually VISIT with one another. Again, the ABSURDITY… Oh, and there was also a sheet of paper which we filled out as each person took turns sharing their praises and prayer requests, and a mini-goal to accomplish for the week. Mine was usually grooming my standard poodle, I hated that job the most…
    Anyhoo… There was a group called “The Fork & Knife” where you signed up to get to know other families that you might not otherwise spend time with. A leader would coordinated the lists of families to “mix it up” and then let them know who they would be dining with, the host would let people know what was on the menu and let them know what to bring. THAT was interesting…
    There were a couple other bible studies we participated in, one for parents (another issue: things were usually age segregated, sigh… I felt like my family was constantly being divided…), but the thing that finally made me throw my hands up in the air was when they promoted a “new” venue for families. I was excited about that! But when we got involved it turned out what they REALLY meant was that it was more of the same, an adult study BUT once a month (more like 6-8 weeks) we would get all the families together for fellowship. (It’s funny the distinction we make between “Bible study” and “fellowship”, no?) What was even more discouraging was that the guy leading the group, a guy who I have a lot of respect for, isn’t so good at the caring an sharing element of fellowship (admittedly so…). He hates “rabbit trails” and tried to keep the convo during the bible study on topic as much as possible. Not only that, but the people in the group really were not all that interested in doing things together outside of the designated times we would meet. Don’t get me wrong, they (the guys mostly) were always game to help each other with projects or loan a truck here and there, but no one was willing to stay for coffee. Me, I would just invite myself in. 🙂 I was always good for a drop-in and I WELCOME drop-ins. But around these heah’ pahts’… some folk consider it rude…
    That’s when it hit me. I wanted, I NEEDED a greater depth of fellowship & community. I really wanted to share my life with these people! What I finally realized was that they didn’t feel that way about me, or about that issue. (Okay, so I’m a little rough around the edges… I didn’t even drink then! DON’T get me going on the “drinking” issue. Good grief…) I was realizing more and more, that the people I DID have a depth of relationship with, the ones I could fellowship with and feel the Spirit burning withing me, were people I didn’t.even.go.to.church.with… Stunning I know.
    The people I used to “go to” church with are wonderful people. They have shown love for my family on many occasions. But the fellowship aspect, the WORSHIP aspect, is stifled.
    I will leave you with one last story. When we had a still-born son 3 years ago, we kept the funeral private. We didn’t want a flood of people who we barely knew coming and making an already difficult time more stressful with trying to maneuver through akward hugs and strained conversation. We let those closest to us, half of which we didn’t even go to church with, know privately that they were welcome to come if they wished. My husband (not ordained) was the one who shared scripture and some heartfelt words. I lead the hymns we had chosen. We asked our pastor to come and he offered a prayer at the end (the associated pastor came even though, unbeknownst to him, we weren’t at that level of comfort with him). My brother-in-law, he’s into some kind of earth worship, said what my husband shared was “The best sermon…” he’d ever heard.
    I am conflicted at times over whether or not refusing to “go to” church is the right thing or not because of the kindness shown to our family over the past 13 years. I want to run head-long away from all the “small group” crap because what we really need is “deep group”: living in community, bringing meals because you know what is going on in each other’s lives and not because the gal who coordinates the meals contacts you. Bigger (more meals, more cars, more shower and wedding gifts) isn’t always better. Sometimes it’s downright lonesome…

      1. Genoise – When I first read this I wanted to join your group since everyone got each other cars 🙂 … just kidding

        On the serious side, I read your comment back through a couple times, and as I read I was flooded with good and bad memories of all the groups I was a part of. Thanks for the real life stories, it helps explain the point I was trying to make about small groups. I definitely am not saying we should never meet, quite the contrary. I think we should meet all the time we can and grow together in life. Do not meet up, give your time, help someone because you are next on the giving list. I hate the format and the checklists these groups spawn as they go… that is not real life, and from my experience, not real growth together.

        Yes, we get a lot of surface friends from these groups (and a few assholes too), but I am with you when you say we need “deep” groups.

        I am getting some people together to gather and grow in Christ quite the opposite from the ways I have been taught over the years. Those ways just do not seem to work for me or many others. We will definitely cut across the grain of the status quo..

        There will be no format, just come by and hang out. No judging, just a relaxed atmosphere to eat, drink, and grow. A place to safely talk spiritual things, and read and discuss scripture. There will be no organization, no church affiliation.. just all of us focusing on Christ. Will there be hard times, yes, a cuss word here or there, yes, and probably a nice cold beer or wine too.

        And “rabbit trails” as you called them… we will have them too!!! Life is not about staying on topic. If you want to go off on a tangent, go off on a flipping tangent, I don’t care. When people go off on tangents, is it not them wanting to open up and bring up stuff that is bothering them. There must be some reason a person is going that way in the discussion.

        (You do not go to a counselor, and when they ask what is wrong and how can I help… they let you talk.. they do not say.. hey stop talking about that and stay on topic)

        … and as for prayer requests, there will not be any opening and closing of prayer. This does not mean we would never pray as a group, there will be prayer, but only if someone feels the need to pray then they can. I feel prayer should come naturally as you grow together in community. People will know what to pray for when they get to know each other deeply and not just surface… and it will not be forced!!!!

        So come on by and lets chill out and discuss life!

      1. Nor did they have a designated time and place for their “meetings”. They knew each other well enough that Jesus got impatient with His disciples and basically called them dunces! Can you imagine THAT in a small group setting?! no.way. People would be calling the pastor to tattle on such “abusive” behavior… I think Jesus would be asked to step down if He were leading a “small group” today. And really, isn’t that the crux of the issue? HE (in most scenarios) is NOT the one leading… “If you can’t say “Amen!” then you oughts say “Ouch!”!

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